What If Members Don’t Know What They Need?

Sure, you can ask members what they want, but designing association benefits isn't their job. It's yours, and it starts with seeing the world from your members' eyes.

Without the input and contributions of members and volunteers, the work we do here at Associations Now (and, more broadly, across ASAE) would not be possible. Over my time here, though, I’ve noticed a consistent dynamic in our collaborative work to generate story ideas.

As a matter of standard practice, my fellow editors and I regularly ask our volunteers, members, and readers to “send us their story ideas” or “tell us what we should be writing about” and so on. This often results in excellent leads for us to pursue. But, just as often, we overhear conversations at conferences, in committee meetings, at networking events, or online (hello, Collaborate!) that catch our attention as potential stories to share and that no one had told us about already. Why not? Well, because it’s not really our members’ job to know what makes a compelling magazine article or blog post. They have their own jobs to worry about.

So, listening is a vital skill in our role here. But it’s not just us editor types. I think this goes for all association pros, especially those in membership.

Members aren’t going to serve up the idea for your association’s next great benefit on a silver platter.

In response to last week’s post about a big problem for associations, Glenn Tecker offered some important nuance to the role of understanding member needs: “If you ask current or prospective members what they need, they will tell you what they want. If you ask them to describe their world, they will give you insights as to what’s important to them that will enable you to determine how you can help.” [emphasis added]

That final step is important. Members aren’t going to serve up the idea for your association’s next great benefit on a silver platter. More likely, they’ll tell you about their work and the problems that keep them up at night, and you’ll need to do some work to determine how the association can help solve those problems.

And once you figure that out, you might think, “Gee, members, why didn’t you just tell us that’s what you wanted?” That’s when you have to remember that your members have their own jobs, and designing your association’s benefits is not one of them.

You might remember the story of Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, who spends a few days working in one of ABA’s member bookstores every year during the holiday season. He says the firsthand experience in his members’ world is invaluable and helps him see potential new work for ABA. “My staff always laments when I come back, full of all kinds of things that I’ve learned and things that we ought to be doing to be helpful and responsive to stores.”

At the Roof Coatings Manufacturers Association, its regulation-tracking maps arose from a common pain point for members and have become one of its most valuable benefits. RCMA members work with chemicals that are subject to regulations that vary from state to state or, in California, by district. “The members had been asking for these VOC [volatile organic compound] regulations for years,” says Kelly Franklin, industry affairs manager at RCMA. “This is an area that has been consistently difficult for them, that they don’t know exactly what regulations are in place in what areas and, within each of these regulations, there’s dozens of product categories.”

Franklin says RCMA’s initial foray into tracking all the regulations “started with a really big, scary spreadsheet,” but soon she and her colleagues decided to design interactive, color-coded maps that illustrate and link directly to the laws in each state. That extra design step has made the maps, as members have told Franklin, “worth their weight in gold,” she says.

That’s the response you want to hear. The best association benefits are the ones that members need but can’t produce themselves or find (easily) anywhere else. I don’t know what the conversion rate is, but Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE, would urge you to try to convert a benefit’s “weight in gold” into an actual dollar value and let members and nonmembers know exactly what those benefits are worth. Rigsbee, a speaker and association membership consultant, recently authored a new book, The ROI of Membership: Today’s Missing Link for Explosive Growth, which elaborates on this advice and underlines the value of members-only benefits.

“Pricing everything will dramatically increase your members’ perception of their ROI,” he writes. “Anything that you make available to members should exhibit an honest “retail” price—everything from electronic newsletters to member lists to legislative updates—everything. … The point is for nonmembers to see what they could be getting for free or at a reduced price if they held membership and for members to see the value they are receiving. Do not make the mistake of letting members think it’s free and possibly valueless. Help them to see the value and ROI.”

Finding these benefits—the ones that prove the value of membership in your association and that will make your members (or your competition) think, “Why didn’t I think of that?”—takes work and a deep understanding of your members’ lives.

This weekend, I was stopped at a traffic light behind a police cruiser and noticed a sticker on the back with a phone number for the department’s crime tip hotline. Consider for a moment how effective police work would be if they relied only on that tip hotline. Of course, it’s a useful tool, but it’s no replacement for shoe-leather detective work in solving crimes. Same goes for associations in solving members’ problems. Don’t wait for members to tell you what they need. They might not even know anyway. Get out there and find out.

What benefits has your association developed as a result of uncovering unmet member needs? How do you go about getting a deeper understanding of your members’ work? Please share in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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